Every time I have an opportunity to enjoy a conversation over coffee with Melissa Ugolini, an Italian-born young accomplished contemporary dancer, she charms me with her buoyancy. Her active career path has led her through various international collaborations, working with well-known choreographers, such as Aakash Odedra, Akram Khan, Andonis Foniadikis, Beyhan Murphy, Ihsam Rüstem and more, shows her hunger for new experiences. What actually strikes me about her is the playfulness and professionality blend within her. During our last conversation we had a chance to contemplate a bit the self and the crossroads artists may encounter.
Why did you come to Istanbul?
I landed in the city accidentally and soon realised that this was the place where I could explore myself both on a personal level and also professionally. Before coming to Turkey, I was part of the contemporary dance scene in the UK. In spite of the artistic buzz and high-quality work that I was involved in throughout the years there, I felt I needed a more authentic experience which was something Istanbul could offer at that time. Although the contemporary dance scene here had yet a lot to develop, I saw the possibility of being part of a true exchange amongst artists and audiences of a different cultural background.
Has your stay in Turkey changed you in any way?
I definitely gained a wider perspective about life in general, and I am extremely grateful that it happened at the right time. Coming to live in a city like Istanbul shifted my centre, so that I could examine the rest of the world and myself from a different point of view. In modern western culture we highly value individualism in all its manifestations, but when you look at it from the outside, there are obviously some downsides to it. Being constantly under the pressure of proving ourselves as professionals, the inner competition within ourselves, the economical struggle, meeting the expectations. In Istanbul I have been part of a company (MDTIstanbul) with twenty fantastic dancers, all very different from each other, and we managed to create a sort of a family. Obviously there are some downsides here too, but I was definitely priviledged to have worked and shared my time with them in Istanbul. This cultural hotspot has something that no other place does.
How would you compare a dancer’s career in Turkey and in Europe?
I truly believe that Turkish contemporary dancers should realise how lucky they are in comparison with the harsh competitive world a European emerging dancer has to face. While being fierce and ambitious, a constant self-motivation is a must for a Western artist. Here access to facilities, work and therefore visibility is much more available. Of course the community is smaller, tied with certain relationships which is an advantage on one hand, but at the same time it fails to provide the necessary new input for keeping up the dynamics of the creative process since there are limited choices and influences. The best advice that I can give to young or newly graduated dancers is to not forget why they started dancing in the first place and to keep the flame going. I am aware that as young professionals need a sort of a role model, whether it is an institution or an individual artist, and Turkey is definitely in need of such role models that emerging artists can look up to.
How do you perceive the role of an artist? Does it carry a certain responsibility to the audience?
Imagine a box, a comfortable zone with four walls that stands for life. A little world where we do not feel the necessity to question what is behind the walls. An artist should be there for you to tap on your shoulder, open the window and offer a view. With dance we use a very direct channel. It is one of the most intuitive art forms that enables both the artist and the audience to live in that very moment, to experience something with an intensity that they would never be exposed to in daily life. Therefore, as an artist I feel the responsibility to offer them a chance to reflect on reality from a different perspective. At the same time the audience has the power to make you question yourself. There is a danger for the art to become finalised to itself. That is the moment when I feel an artist should go back to their roots and remind himself or herself why he or she is doing this.
Have you experimented with the idea of your own choreography?
I do not feel I am ready for it yet. Although I am closer to it, I feel I am still in the process of searching for my own identity as a dancer. I am in a gathering stage right now, exploring the possibilities in my body. In order to create something, I need to have a clear reason to do it, whether it is something I want to say or just the love for movement that compels me to do it.
What has been the most impressive experience in your dancing career?
One of them is definitely seeing “Political Mother” by Hofesh Schechter on stage. I have seen it multiple times, with many years in between, and I have been dragged by its beauty and heaviness each time. It is a real emotional shock, able to grab you from the gut. Seeing the piece, I felt that everything I had believed in was finally proved. It showed me the power that art has. The second powerful experience I have been blessed with was an encounter in a small town in Bulgaria that had very limited access to contemporary art. After the performance, a lady approached me with tears in her eyes and I guess she thanked me! I was mesmerised by the intimacy of the moment. I felt that through dance we can effectively break all the barriers of language and open the way for mutual, honest sharing. I will never forget that moment. It has influenced me in the choices I have made and has shaped the reasons why I am still walking along the path I have chosen and hopefully will continue to do so for some time.
Melissa Ugolini is a contemporary dance artist who has been residing in Istanbul since 2013. More information about the artist is available on her official website: http://www.melissaugolini.com
Edit Bapcanyova, May 2017